Andrew Marr’s History of the World – Word and Sword
At this time, half the world’s population lived in one of two great empires – China and a western rival it had barely heard of – Rome.
Each Empire ruled roughly the same number of people. About 45 million at the height of the Roman Empire and according to the Han Chinese tax records 57 million there. They had roughly the same amount of territory and both thought, in effect, that they ruled the world. The Romans spoke of ‘orbis terrae’ – the whole world, the Chinese about ‘all under heaven’.
They were both great engineering conquerors and their armies looked pretty similar and were equally deadly. And yet, separated by 4,500 miles neither was really aware of the other’s existence.
Rome was a civilisation based on militarism, consumerism and trade. The financial and political capital of the Mediterranean. But earthly power would not be enough for its most famously upwardly mobile soldier about to apply for the position of living God.
In 48 BC, he arrived in Egypt. He’d fought his way up through the rough world of Roman politics, slaughtering more than a million people in Gaul.
To bring himself applause. He was now the most powerful man in the Mediterranean. His name, of course, was Julius Caesar.
Egypt had once been the glory of the world. Now, under Greek rulers it was still a storehouse of ancient learning, science. It was weak, it was deep in debt, but its capital city Alexandria was widely considered the greatest city on Earth.
It’s a library had 700,000 volumes, virtually the entire human collection of human wisdom so far the classical world. It was a centre for the study of everything from engineering and medicine, mathematics to history.
The Egyptians saw their Pharaohs as living gods. Cleopatra embraced the tradition. To think of her as a saucy vamp was to grotesquely misunderstand her. She spoke in nine languages she was an author, trained in philosophy, sciences, she was a ruthless survivor. In a power-struggle with her little brother Ptolemy she needed muscle, she needed Caesar. Her brother had put guards around Caesar. Cleopatra was not a woman easily stopped.
The stage was set for one of the most dramatic entrances in history.
Cleopatra had just one night to win Julius Caesar over. A Roman historian noted Julius Caesar was much impressed by her intelligence, charm and charisma.
By the time morning came and her brother broke in, there they were, Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. Too late little Ptolemy, Cleopatra was back on the throne. Caesar and Cleopatra sealed their alliance with a procession up the Nile. Being seen was vital for ancient rulers. At 21, Cleopatra was now sole ruler of Egypt, and she was pregnant with Caesar’s son – Caesarion, a potential leader of both the Egyptian and the Roman worlds.
And the middle-aged Julius Caesar? Tired by his conquest of this living God, Caesar decided to become one himself. He had his face painted red, like the god Jupiter for his triumphal return to Rome. A new religious cult was instituted – Jupiter Julius. Outside his house a special shrine was raised to the living God and, of course, the name of a month after him – we call it July.
If Julius Caesar had been a modern politician we’d have had no doubt about the trouble, we’d have said he’d lost it.
Rome was a stroppy political city that had rejected the rule of kings nearly 500 years before. Caesar’s bid to be a God would be his undoing. When Julius Caesar was declared dictator in perpetuity some of the senators decided to act. On March 15 44 BC, Julius Caesar entered the theatre of Pompey with this Senate was meeting that day. He was presented with a petition as a distraction. Caesar’s one-time friend Brutus is said to have delivered the last 23 dagger thrusts.
It’s a rough old trade, politics.
The Empire was torn apart by Civil War as would-be successors to Julius Caesar fought for supremacy for 14 years. Cleopatra found herself on the losing side. She was too dangerous to be allowed to survive. Cleopatra refused to give herself up, she was, after all, a God. She was not about to let some common mortal take her life. As she died, so died Egypt, the world’s oldest kingdom became just another Roman province.
But it was Caesar’s megalomania that won out in the end. Every one of his successors was worshipped as a divine emperor.